The role of technology in enabling nature based ocean solutions to climate change

One of the biggest discussion points of COP26 has been the important role that nature-based solutions could have on limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Nature-based solutions not only help address climate change, but they also reduce biodiversity loss and food insecurity in an integrated way.

Comprising 71% of the earth surface and more than 95% of the biosphere, the oceans are set to play a critical role as part of an integrated strategy for nature-based climate solutions. Since 1971 the ocean has absorbed over 90% of excess heat attributed to greenhouse gas emissions. They sequester approximately 25%-30% of anthropogenic emissions and are the world’s largest store of carbon.

Importantly the oceans also provide a main source of protein to over three billion people while supporting the livelihoods of an estimated 520 million people who rely on fishing and fishing related activities.

In short, the oceans’ health and the health of humans is inextricably linked.

Marine biodiversity loss The health of the ocean however is rapidly declining. Marine biodiversity loss is increasingly impairing the ocean's capacity to provide food, sequester carbon, maintain water quality, and recover from distress. Up to 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, with scientists predicting a global collapse in fish stocks by 2050. Furthermore, the degraded ecosystems cannot provide protection of coastlines from severe storms and tsunamis, or key ecosystem services.

With the increasing recognition of the role of marine ecosystems on climate mitigation and adaptation there is a growing need to significantly increase the size and number of fully protected marine areas that can provide an opportunity to allow these ecosystems to regenerate and recover from decades of exploitation.

However, to develop true nature-based solutions a holistic view of the oceans needs to be taken into consideration. Currently conversations tend to be focused on coastal solutions; however, these do not consider the interconnected nature of the oceans.

Ocean protection and monitoring There is a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the need for protecting ecological corridors within and beyond national jurisdiction to support ecosystem structure and processes at the regional scale. This requires increased geographic coverage of monitoring and protection of areas where there may be insufficient directly measurable financial incentives. This is further exacerbated by the high cost of operations at sea making it financially unviable for many developing nations and small island states.

Operating in a marine environment is often two to three orders of magnitude more expensive than comparable activities on land. This is exacerbated by the lack of funding resulting in an estimated current funding gap for UN SDG 14 of $149 billion per year. This is despite an estimated return on investment of $5 dollars for every $1 dollar spent on healthy ocean action.

Whilst an increased focus on the oceans as part of the UN decade of the ocean, and the global visibility gained through COP 26 should drive more funding for monitoring and maintaining the ocean health, it is unlikely to be sufficient to completely close the existing funding gap.

New and innovative technologies will play a critical role in improved management of the full ocean ecosystem services. Technologies such as satellite derived earth observation and autonomous drones provide scalable and sustainable solutions to help reduce the cost of marine operations.

These technologies will augment the need for the deployment of single large, manned vessels for data collection and protection. By having more platforms offshore collecting multiple data points across the full ocean ecosystem, scientists and governments can make better informed decisions around the management of our oceans and their inherent natural ecosystem services.

Considering that the ocean is being touted as a $100 trillion market opportunity, ocean technology still receives a fraction of the funding that is required to enable the $22.8 trillion that sustainable ocean-based policy interventions could generate over the next 30 years.